This week, Muslim Americans, particularly women, across the web and social media are abuzz about a viral music video, affiliated with a Muslim Hipster group called Mipsterz. The video set to Jay-Z’s song “Somewhere in America” features Muslim women of diverse ethnic backgrounds fashionably dressed with hijab (headscarf) doing random things in major American cities – climbing trees, running across benches, strutting in high-heels, skateboarding, riding a motorcycle, unsuccessfully chopping wood, even professional fencing.
I did not understand the hype, at first; it seemed downright silly. I found the video to be beautiful, but dull. There was, of course, the surprise of seeing swag from my husband’s maker shop, danger!awesome, worn by one of the women. Aside from that – the song is not original, plus, the concept of “hijab fashionistas” is pretty old and has promoted for several years by global fashion magazines such as Aquila and blogs like Haute Hijab. Hundreds of Pinterest boards and Instagram posts feature hijab chic and “hijabulous” fashion ideas routinely. So what are people worked up about and why over this video specifically?
Initially, there were Sana Saeed’s claims about a relatively obscure video on Twitter, “Oh look. Two Muslim guys made a video starring Islamo-fashionistas strutting their cool to Jay Z. Kill. Me. Now.” Her Twitter debate was followed by her piece in The Islamic Monthly with claims that the video had been “produced/created/directed primarily by Muslim men” reinforcing “voyeuristic-cinematography-through-the-Male-Gaze” and the objectification of women as well as the worries from others she highlighted about the hijab being normalized to become more “palatable” or “cool” to Western audiences. Noor Hasan, building off of Saeed’s piece, said the video also normalizes wealth and materialism. Then Rabia Chaudry called out both Saeed and Hasan claiming they were creating a social media “shaming-storm.” An entry from the blog Collard Green Muslim then started making the rounds, shared by Saeed and others. The author built off of Saeed’s argument and claimed that one of the video’s creators had previously made inappropriate comments to a female participant when speaking publicly at a Muslim event. The blog entry, which has since been taken down, started rumors and obscure theories flying again.
A significant aspect ignored by the debaters was that two women were involved in the creation of the video – Sara Aghajanian and Layla [last name withheld] were listed as producers and directors. And despite cries of concerns for the women in the video, none of the opinionators seem to have actually sought out the participants. One participant, Noor Tagouri said, she thought the video footage was for a music video by Malaysian musician, Yuna. Rattani refuted these claims on WBAI and Huffington Post Live saying that the women all filled written consent forms and were sent the final product before it was released publicly. Hajer Naili wrote and spoke about her choice to take part in the project and how she felt it represented who she is in her daily life – a blend of Muslim traditionalism and American pop culture. Aminah Sheikh discussed her struggles with hijab and how being in the video made her feel more comfortable with herself and her identity. Due to this debate, many of the names of the other women have been removed from public view because of issues of online harassment and shaming.
At the heart of the whole debate is: whose narrative represents the authentic Muslim woman? We know Muslims are not monolithic, our traditions and practices vary greatly, so there is no singular Muslim woman narrative, still collectively our different narratives form an authentic Muslim experience. We spend so much time explaining this to the rest of society, yet, we seem to forget this ourselves and do exactly the same thing. These extreme reactions to a relatively benign video only serve to prove our communal insecurities as a marginalized group, projecting our personal experiences and fears onto any representation of Muslims on any form of media. We are collectively, Mr. Vernon from The Breakfast Club. We see Muslim women as we want to see them, “in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.” We see the academic, the feminist, the princess, the fashionista, the rebel, but we are so much more and we need to stop bringing one another down with reactionary projections. As Kübra Gümüşay wrote,
“We need to stop doing to our people what others have been doing to us for too long: Forcing every public (and private) Muslim to be the representative of an entire religion, mistake them for an advocate of Islam, expect them to speak for ‘us’ and wrongly be mad at them for not having sought our approval before speaking on ‘our behalf.’”
Whatever emotions brought out of us when Muslim women are portrayed publically, especially when they are doing something we do not approve of, we need to remember it is wrong to automatically assume that she must have some ulterior motive that needs to be dissected or that some man must be behind the scenes influencing her thinking. Assuming this strips women of their agency. Sometimes art is simply art and a story is just a story. Sometimes women, even Muslim women, want to be objectified. And for all women, whether they choose to wear hijab in any form or strip naked, it is the decision to take control of their bodies and decide how they are presented to the world that is empowering, not the resulting display. Furthermore, we all have a basic need to feel we belong and are accepted – and that is OK – it is neither a call for help nor is it a setback to women, and it is definitely not contrary to Islam. As Sohaib Sultan, chaplain at Princeton University, pointed out,
“This whole argument that this video is just showing women wanting to fit in – I think that we have to critically examine whether that is necessarily a problem … Islamic history has shown that wherever Islam has gone… Muslims have adapted [in dress, architecture, culture and beauty] to fit in.”
Nadia S. Mohammad is an editor for AltMuslimah.com.